North Coast 500


‘Scotland’s Answer to Route 66’ – Daily Mail headline

My astute reader will have spotted all the turbulence concerning the opening of Scotland’s new route, ‘North Coast 500.’ All the great and the good and their slavish adherents are gathering to praise it and be associated with it and all the agencies are rushing to put cash into it; fine, certainly it is a step forward – or many steps since the route is 500 miles long (well, around 500 miles long) – and it will boost the Scottish economy.

The name and idea are not original though. Basically it is an amalgamation of some existing routes; in fact there is nothing novel even in the concept. Other countries have a ‘500 mile’ route (even a 500 kilometre route) of one description or another. The comparison with Scotland’s latest walking route to the ‘Route 66’ of the United States is hardly apt though.

The question for Caithness is how the 500 will fit in with the Great North Highland Way (GNHW), the walking project being supported by a small but staunch band of enthusiasts both in Caithness and along the north coastline of Sutherland.

Very well, I should think. The two routes do overlap and should synergise with each other. The world-wide publicity surrounding the ‘500’ can bounce to good effect with the GNHW. In fact, of the two routes, I believe the most fruitful could well be the much shorter GNHW. I base that on the success of the existing West Highland Way that runs from the town of Milngavie in the central belt to Fort William in the north. The West Highland Way, in essence, starts from a rail head and ends in another one and is so structured to fill a week’s holiday for those walkers coming up from the south. Given the length of the proposed walk of the GNHW that fits in with either a two week walk or a one week walk depending on where one starts – the shorter, one week walk being from Thurso.

Tina Irving introduced both Ian Ellis and Easyways to the concept of the Way. Easyways has become a firm supporter of the concept of a dedicated walking route across the top of the world; they have already committed some cash into the project and have had enquiries about walking the route already. And these enquiries have come from around the world: Andrew Fernie of Easyways considers that, although the Aurora Trail will not top the 80,000 or so walkers that the West Highland Way achieves annually, such is the interest that my reckoning of ten per cent of that number could be readily attained (and, as an aside, Paul Monaghan, the SNP candidate for the constituency has also given his not inconsiderable support to the project).

Cash though! That dreaded word cash. Where are we in raising the necessary finance required to run and maintain such a route?

Firstly, the good news.

The feasibility study has now been completed and is available to be purchased. This study was carried out under the auspices of assisted by London South Bank University. It furnishes a report on the infrastructure required to bring the Aurora Trail (or the Great North Highland Way, if you prefer it to be called) into viability along with an assessment of its potential economic impact on the north (a good impact) as well as a full marketing plan. It also provides structural costs and thus there is a costed out business plan in it.

And the feasibility study is for sale for relatively little (cost price almost); after all the people who undertook it do need to recoup their expenses, so that brings us back to funding.

There is a loop here; some bodies will not consider funding until they have sight of the feasibility study and, therefore, until money is put in to purchase this none of their money will be forthcoming. Given the low cost of the study perhaps that may not be a problem for too long. Once the study is generally available then several bodies will consider aiding with the capital costs of the route – notably Highlands and Islands Enterprise, the Big National Lottery Fund (as per John Thurso) and Scottish National Heritage amongst others. The running costs are the problem, however. But, even here there is hope. Highland Council have said they would consider the matter once they had sight of the feasibility study and, really good news, SSE, the company that owns wind farms in Caithness, have also said they would consider an application (but only after October when their new sponsorship scheme starts). This is especially welcome since SSE is a co-sponsor of the Loch Ness Way and is always keen to put something back into the local communities where their wind farms are based.

Other private companies of goodwill towards Caithness may also be interested but IGas (Scotland) are too involved in the variability’s of the oil market at the moment and Atlantis Resources feel, rightly, that they want to get their feet tucked under the Caithness plateau first before they do anything.

I have a feeling though that once one sponsor commits others will follow and, although it is appreciated that a willingness to look at a proposal does not mean adopting that proposal, it is a first step and I will be keeping in touch with all the potential financial helpers.

I am confident that this aspiration of the Caithness Waybaggers on the Nineties will come to fruition and that we will eventually see the great and the good eulogising over the Great North Highland Way and congratulating themselves on their foresight in supporting the concept — ok, I’m being sarcastic.

Note.. this article was written by Bill Paterson in 2015. We have made considerable progress since then. No money but much more research. HIE want everything for free, despite the fact they do not have a feasibility study or business plan for the NC500. Why, then, are they asking one for free from us, as well as the 15 years of research free of charge.


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